Today is the feast day of Saint Julie Billiart. Ora pro nobis.
Saint Julie Billiart (1751-1816) , was a visionary and virgin of the Church. Born to wealthy farmers in Cuvilly, France, Julie displayed an aptitude and interest in religion from an early age. By age seven, she had reportedly memorized the Catechism, and her local priest allowed her to make her First Eucharist and Confirmation at age nine, well before the expected age of thirteen. At that time, her love for the Lord compelled her to a make a vow of chastity, pledging to remain a virgin in service to God. She became known as the “Saint of Cuvilly” by those who encountered her, due to her virtue and grace.
When twenty-two years old, a murder attempt on her father gave her such a shock that her lower limbs were paralysed and she was confined to bed for twenty-two years. During this time, she received Holy Communion daily, spent four or five hours in contemplation and the rest of the day making altar linen and lace. She also gathered the village children around her bed to teach them catechism in preparation for First Communion.
During the French Revolution Julie Billiart had to take refuge at Amiens, and it was here she met Viscountess Françoise Blin de Bourdon, a thirty-eight years old woman who had spent her youth in piety and good works. She had been imprisoned with all of her family during the Reign of Terror, and had escaped death only by the fall of Robespierre. She was not immediately attracted by Julie (paralysed and almost speechless), but eventually grew to love and admire her for her wonderful gifts. A small company of friends of the viscountess (young and high-born ladies) was formed around the bed of “the saint”. Julie taught them how to lead an interior life, while they devoted themselves generously to the causes of God and the poor. Though they attempted all the exercises of an active community life, some of the first disciples dropped off until only Françoise Blin de Bourdon was left.
Julie founded the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur—an order devoted to religious instruction of the poor, and the training of Catechists. Elected Mother General of the order, under her guidance the Sisters of Notre Dame grew, spreading their charism throughout France and Europe. Over 15 convents were established, with Mother Julie traveling on foot to each of them (over 120 journeys), despite her again failing health. When the Napoleonic Wars put the convents in the path of advancing armies, Mother Julie became ill with anxiety, praying with zeal, and the convents were spared. She and her order nursed the wounded following the battle of Waterloo, a physical and emotional task from which Julie never recovered.
In 1803 under the auspices of the Bishop of Amiens, Julie and Françoise decided to found a the Institute of the Sisters of Notre Dame, a society for the Christian education of girls and the training of religious teachers. Their first pupils were eight orphans. Several young persons offered themselves to assist the two superiors. They did away with the distinction between choir sisters and lay sisters and put each sister to work in a situation which best suited her. On the feast of the Sacred Heart, June 1, 1804, Mother Julie, after a novena made in obedience to her confessor, was cured of paralysis. Other houses of the order were set up in Ghent and Namur and they set up the mother-house in Namur.
In the space of twelve years (1804-16) Mother Julie founded fifteen convents, made one hundred and twenty journeys, many of them long and toilsome, and carried on a close correspondence with her spiritual daughters. Hundreds of letters are preserved in the motherhouse. In 1815 Belgium was the battlefield of the Napoleonic wars, and the mother-general suffered great anxiety, as several of her convents were in the path of the armies, but they escaped injury. In January, 1816, she was taken ill, and died after three months of pain borne with patience. Her reputation for sanctity spread and was confirmed by several miracles. Pope Pius X beatified her in 1906 and in 1969 Pope Paul VI canonised her.
Image: St. Julie Billiart (1751–1816), the spiritual mother of the Sisters of Notre Dame., circa 1850 (5)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff